EU foreign affairs ministers meet today (22 July) to speed up the implementation of sanctions against Russia decided by EU leaders on 16 July, one day before the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was brought down. No further sanctions are expected at this stage, diplomats said.
For all the tough talk, Europe is unlikely to punish Russia over last week's downing of the airliner that has send shockwaves across the world.
Diplomats said today's meeting in Brussels was still not expected to go much further than agreeing on the people and possibly companies to be hit with asset freezes under a more aggressive framework agreed last week. Previously, they had only said they would decide on the list by the end of July.
US President Barack Obama has piled pressure on Europe for a more forceful response, and the three leading EU powers - Britain, France and Germany - said they should be ready to ratchet up sanctions.
But demonstrating the difficulty of getting agreement from 28 member states, London clashed with Paris over France's decision to press ahead with the sale of warships to Russia.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday such an order had become "unthinkable".
"We need to put the pressure on with all our partners to say that we cannot go on doing business as usual with a country when it is behaving in this way," Cameron stated.
He also said the European Union should consider hard-hitting economic sanctions and that Russia could not expect access to European markets, capital and technical expertise.
‘Impulse must come from The Hague’
Several diplomats said that moving towards more sweeping economic sanctions could only be decided by heads of government. The attitude of the Netherlands, which lost 193 people in the incident, would be critical, the diplomats said.
"The impulse must come from The Hague, because they have the moral mandate to demand a resolute, firm reaction. Everything depends on that," one EU diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
"I think the events will serve to speed up sanctions, but as long as no new European council [of leaders] is called, ministers cannot go further even if they want to," another EU diplomat said.
The Foreign Minister of the Netherlands Frans Timmermans has made yesterday an impressive statement at the UN Security Council, denouncing the excruciatingly slow process of recovering the remains of the victims and the reported looting. He announced that his country was ready to assume a leading role in the further investigations.
The next scheduled summit of EU leaders is on 30 August, though EU members could call for another emergency meeting.
A summit of EU leaders on 16 July, the day before the airliner was shot down, agreed that the EU would punish Russian companies that help to destabilize Ukraine and block new loans to Russia.
The wording was deliberately vague as the meeting agreed to target "entities, including from the Russian Federation, that are materially or financially supporting actions undermining or threatening Ukraine's sovereignty".
Adding companies to any sanctions list is more complicated than naming individuals, because of the risk of legal challenges.
The United States and its allies have blamed pro-Russian rebels and Moscow itself over the downing of the plane. Russia has denied involvement.
Speaking in parliament yesterday, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that the EU would impose further sanctions on Russia if it were proved that Russia had been directly or indirectly responsible for bringing the plane down.
Analysts say it could be extremely difficult to prove responsibility for the disaster, which has been viewed as a potential turning point for international pressure to resolve the crisis in Ukraine.
Hundreds have died in a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine, which broke out after Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula following the toppling of a Moscow-backed president in Kyiv in February by pro-Western protesters.
Britain has said it is ready to pay the price of moving towards a new phase of EU economic sanctions because much bigger costs were at stake.
London is a prime destination for Russian businesses, and Russian oligarchs are major property owners in Britain.
Britain's energy major BP already faces the prospect of fallout following the US decision to sanction Russia's largest oil firm Rosneft, of which BP owns a fifth.
France has said so far it is going ahead with a €.2 billion contract to supply Mistral helicopter carriers to Russia because cancelling the deal would do more damage to Paris than to Moscow. On Monday, a French defense ministry official said any decision on whether to suspend the delivery of the first warship would only take place in October.
EU diplomats made clear sectoral sanctions would be extremely difficult for many EU nations. They are especially nervous about the energy sector, central to the Russian economy, but also to the European Union.
EU nations rely on Russia for about 30% of their gas demand and have intertwined interests based on decades of energy reliance. According to UN data, excluding Russian pipeline gas exports to the EU - around $60 billion (€44 billion) a year - the Netherlands was the biggest destination for Russian exports last year, mostly of oil and metals.
"Energy sanctions would most likely derail the fragile European recovery in general and could even lead to a complete economic collapse in certain member states," one diplomat said. "I don't see how collective economic suicide serves us or the Ukrainians."
While some member states, such as Britain, do not rely on Russian gas, others are 100% dependent on Russia, having no other suppliers. In volume terms, Germany and Italy have the biggest exposure.
Diplomats said that if energy had to be part of any sanctions regime, the European Union would have to agree ways to share the financial burden.
Remains, black boxes handed over
In the meantime, it was reported that the remains of some of the nearly 300 victims of MH17 were making their way to the Netherlands today as a senior Ukrainian separatist leader handed over the plane's black boxes to Malaysian experts.
Earlier today, senior separatist leader Aleksander Borodai handed over the black boxes in the city of Donetsk.
"Here they are, the black boxes," Borodai told a room packed with journalists at the headquarters of his self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic as an armed rebel placed the boxes on a desk.
Colonel Mohamed Sakri of the Malaysian National Security Council told the meeting the two black boxes were "in good condition".
US President Barack Obama said it was time for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia "to pivot away from the strategy that they've been taking and get serious abouttrying to resolve hostilities within Ukraine."
He said Putin and Russia had a direct responsibility to compel separatists to cooperate with the investigation, and that the burden was on Moscow to insist that separatists stop tampering with the probe, he said.
"What are they trying to hide?" Obama said at the White House.
US Secretary of State John Kerry laid out on Sunday what he called overwhelming evidence of Russian complicity in the shooting down of MH17, and expressed disgust at how the bodies of the victims had been treated at the crash site.
But Russia's Defence Ministry challenged accusations that pro-Russian separatists were responsible for shooting down the airliner and said Ukrainian warplanes had flown close to it.
The ministry also rejected accusations that Russia had supplied the rebels with SA-11 Buk anti-aircraft missile systems - the weapon said by Kiev and the West to have downed the airliner - "or any other weapons".
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a televised address that the downing of the airliner must not be used for political ends and urged separatists to allow international experts access to the crashsite.
"We have called repeatedly on all parties to the conflict to stop the bloodshed immediately and begin negotiations. I believe that if military operations had not resumed in eastern Ukraine on 28 June, this tragedy probably could have been avoided", Putin said.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron wrote in the Sunday Times:
“We must establish the full facts of what happened. But the growing weight of evidence points to a clear conclusion: that MH17 was blown out of the sky by a surface to air missile fired from a rebel-held area.
I”f it is the case, then we must be clear what it means: this is a direct result of Russia de-stabilising a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, backing thuggish militias, and training and arming them.
“We must turn this moment of outrage into a moment of action.
“Action to find those who committed this crime, and bring them to justice.
“But this goes much wider than justice.
“In Europe, we should not need to be reminded of the consequences of turning a blind eye when big countries bully smaller countries. We should not need reminding of the consequences of letting the doctrine of 'might is right' prevail. We should not need to be reminded of the lessons of European history.
“But we do. For too long, there has been a reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in Eastern Ukraine.
“Sitting around the European Council table on Wednesday evening, I saw that reluctance at work again.
“Some countries, with Britain at the forefront, have consistently pushed for action that reflects the magnitude of the long-term threat. They tend to be the countries with the closest physical proximity to Russia and the most direct experience of what is at stake. Their own independence and nationhood have come at a high price. They never forget it. But others seem more anxious to make this a problem to be managed and contained, not a challenge to be met and mastered.
“Elegant forms of words and fine communiques are no substitute for real action. The weapons and fighters being funnelled across the border between Russia and Eastern Ukraine; the support to the militias; the half truths, the bluster, the delays. They have to stop,
“Some international crises are insoluble. Not this one. If President Putin stops the support to the fighters in Eastern Ukraine, and allows the Ukrainian authorities to restore order, this crisis can be brought to an end. Of course there must be proper protections for Russian-speaking minorities. These issues can be addressed. But the over-riding need is for Russia to cease its support for violent separatists.
“If President Putin does not change his approach to Ukraine, then Europe and the West must fundamentally change our approach to Russia.
This is not about military action, plainly. But it is time to make our power, influence and resources count.”
- 30 Aug.: EU leaders hold extraordinary summit over top jobs. Further Russia sanctions could be discussed.